While I like a number of things about Age of Wonders III, one problem holds it back – pacing.
Specifically, AoW3 suffers from the intersection of three design decisions:
1. Limited victory conditions. Random maps (and the three campaign maps I’ve played) can only be won by defeating every enemy.
2. Large maps with many cities (either existing or player-built). This is especially noticeable in the campaign, but even small random maps have room for quite a few cities.
3. Limited strategic game. Due to AoW3’s focus on warfare, the strategic layer supports the tactical battles (a la XCOM or Total War) rather than vice-versa.
The combined effect is to turn the late game into a slog. The more cities on the map, the more build queues and armies the player must juggle – and the more battles the player will have to fight. But because empire management is a matter of “bigger empire = better”, the additional work doesn’t translate into additional depth (1).
The good news is, I think this problem can be mitigated by creating a random map with the right settings – I produced a brisk, almost RTS-paced match by shrinking the map, turning down the number of cities and dwellings, and turning off new city construction. Perhaps I went overboard, but the result was surprisingly enjoyable! Few cities, few units, and few battles made each one more important. And I could wrap up the game soon after reaching the “tipping point” – the moment when victory became inevitable (2).
Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the campaign, so from now, I think I’ll stick to random maps. For larger or more populous maps to be feasible, I think the easiest solution would be to add new victory conditions – for example, “hold X city for a specified time”, or “accumulate victory points from X, Y, and Z locations” (3). But I do recommend fiddling with the advanced random map settings – a bit of work produced a short, sweet, turn-based fantasy wargame, and I intend to keep experimenting along those lines. What are your favourite settings?
(1) In other words, bigger maps/empires translate into more low-level decisions (what should I build in each city?) but not more high-level strategic decisions – a topic I discussed last year in my analysis of Total War and Rome II.
(2) I have heard a fourth complaint – top-tier units eventually replacing everything else. I haven’t yet decided whether this is a problem, but if it is, I think fewer cities would help here, too. Fewer cities -> less income and production -> fewer top-tier units.
(3) Perhaps the best comparison is the notoriously sprawling Dominions series, which made victory points the default win condition (and integrated it into the lore) with Dominions 4, or Shogun 2, which required control of X% of the map as well as Kyoto, at the centre. Looking at the RTS genre, Company of Heroes encouraged ebbs and flows by placing three victory points on the map, and since there were only two sides, it was impossible to stalemate. By contrast, reworking the strategic layer to add more depth would be drastic – and might not even fit AoW3’s overall design, given its emphasis on tactical battles. Hasn’t Sid Meier said that detailed tactical battles would interrupt the flow of Civilization?
The above comments are based on a review copy supplied by developer Triumph Studios.